Before the season, when all the experts were picking the Detroit Tigers to run away with the AL Central, manager Jim Leyland warned that it wasn’t going to be that easy.
How right he was.
The Tigers (15-14) needed every bit of skill, luck and effort to get their first win against the Seattle Mariners (14-18) in five tries, a 6-4 nail-biter Tuesday night at Seattle’s Safeco Field.
After a heartbreaking loss to the Mariners in the bottom of the ninth Monday night, the Tigers were counting on their ace, Justin Verlander, to set the tone.
But Verlander clearly wasn’t himself, even though he allowed just three runs on seven hits while walking two and striking out six.
Verlander and Leyland were not happy with home plate umpire Brian Knight’s strike zone. Leyland was so unhappy that he let his displeasure be known and was given the gate for his comments from the dugout in the third inning.
“I just wasn’t happy with the strike zone and let him know it and they let me know where to go,” Leyland told FOX Sports Detroit’s Mickey York on the post-game show. “That’s pretty much how it worked.”
Even Verlander, who normally remains outwardly calm on the mound, had to be restrained by catcher Gerald Laird and calmed by pitching coach Jeff Jones later in the third.
“I think he cooled down,” Leyland said. “He got a little excited, there were a couple close pitches. Sometimes when you’re in a jam, you throw a pitch that you think is a strike and you don’t get it, you get a little frustrated. Like I said, the umpire saw it one way, we saw it another way, that’s part of baseball. We got the win and that’s the important thing.”
Verlander wasn’t just frustrated with the strike zone, he was frustrated by his own inability to consistently find it.
“The first four innings for me were some of the toughest innings I’ve had to throw,” Verlander told York. “Really struggled with the command of my fastball and got out of a jam there in the second, wasn’t quite able to get out of a jam in the third. In the fifth and sixth, just slowed down a bit and felt like I started making some better pitches, some quality pitches.”
It’s a testament to Verlander’s ability that despite his struggles, he was able to go at least six innings for the 49th straight time.
Andy Dirks, in his second game batting second in the lineup, drove in the Tigers’ first three runs, on an RBI single in the first and a two-run double in the second. Delmon Young’s two-run double gave Verlander a 5-0 lead to work with in the second.
Prince Fielder accounted for the Tigers’ final run with a 398-foot rocket in the top of the seventh inning.
Phil Coke gave up an RBI single in the seventh to Brendan Ryan. Joaquin Benoit pitched a perfect eighth.
Closer Jose Valverde came out for the ninth and proceeded to walk the first two batters, Mike Carp and Michael Saunders.
“That wasn’t the best feeling in the world, to be honest with you,” said Leyland, who was watching on TV in his office in the clubhouse.
After striking out Dustin Ackley, Valverde appeared to get Ryan to ground into a double play. Fielder, though, couldn’t collect the throw from Ramon Santiago, giving the Tigers another chance.
Once Ryan stole second, the Tigers intentionally walked Ichiro Suzuki. Up came rookie Jesus Montero. On the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Montero hit a foul ball that defensive right field replacement Don Kelly caught as he fell into the stands.
“I want everybody to enjoy the game,” a relieved Valverde told York on the field after the game. “It’s tough to win the game. I do my job, thank God, all the guys. You see Kelly, the play he do over there. It’s awesome.”
It may not have been the easy, pretty win that Tigers fans hoped for, but it certainly was better than a loss.
“I think it’s a good win, I don’t think it’s that ugly,” said Austin Jackson, who was 2-4 with a run scored. “It’s going to be like that sometimes. You’ll take a win however you can get it.”